The Thing Is

Things are not just things

Author: Kerry Temple ’74

On a shelf in my office is a curious bit of paper-mache sculpture. It stands a little more than 2 feet tall — the pointy tip of a giant fountain pen. Impaled on the pointy tip is a small man in a gray suit, white shirt and striped tie, his arms and legs splayed as if he has been gigged in the back. And yet, somehow, it is humorous, whimsical.

The piece draws comments from visitors or, more often, stares from people sitting across the desk from me. It looms near the ceiling to my back, a colorful totem presiding.

I do not know exactly what it means. It was given to me some years back. A story comes with it. The story reflects certain beams of meaning, but the artistic ambiguity persists.

Let’s just say I was at an intersection in my life. So I sought directions at the crossroads and invited Andy Burd ’62 to lunch. I’d known Andy only through his work, through the videos he had produced. Andy was creative and goodhearted; he had a fine spirit and a joie de vivre. He got it — my quandary. He and I became friends. He had a cool house near the beach in New Buffalo, Michigan, and he had a collection of cool things there, banjos and beach glass, indigenous artwork and the little man hoisted on the tip of an art pen. It said something, I thought, about the trials of creativity. And maybe commerce. And the kinds of sacrifices to be made.

A year or two later Andy showed up at my office bearing this gift of paper-mache, even though I had never said anything to him about it. He wanted me to have it. He told me again of the year he had quit his job in Chicago as a young man with a wife and small children — just days before Christmas — an act of bold irresponsibility. He’d had enough corporate maneuvering; he was striking out on his own. “If you love what you do,” he told me dozens of times, “you will never work a day in your life.” He launched his own freelance video production business.

The sculpture of the man on the pen had caught his eye when he was walking the Chicago streets back then. It was in the window of a gallery. He went inside and inquired and found the piece far too expensive — nothing he could afford. He would walk past it for a good long while, he told me, still trying to get his career off the ground. Eventually, finally, his work carried him to the place where he could purchase the piece he had long admired in the window.

He was going through the stuff in his house, he said, and wanted me to have it. I understood all he was giving me. It was much more than a Stephen Hansen sculpture, however valuable that is.


Bj 7
Sculpture by Stephen Hansen

I have baseball cards, too. People ask me how much they are worth. Thousands of dollars probably, although they have no price tag. They carry a treasure chest of memories and dreams. I was 8 when I started collecting. My mother would give me a quarter and a penny for the five-and-dime next to the grocery store if I went along when she shopped. There I could get five packs with five cards each; the penny paid the sales tax. I did not open the packs until I got home and got seated, peeling away each waxy wrapper in hopes of Mantle or Mays or Aaron, but mostly Clemente.

My card collection grew into the thousands over time, but I was never richer than walking into that TG&Y with the two coins in my fist, my mother’s generosity financing my addiction to the holy cards from my boyhood Valhalla. The collection is stored safely in my basement now, and I occasionally thumb through the stacks of old familiar faces, each time revisiting the feelings of anticipation, excitement and gratitude I felt back then, aware of my mother’s ambivalence about this apparent waste of money. But I think of her still, and the way she smiled and humored me.

In a leap of faith — and untutored naivete — I thought it would be fine to get some cards autographed by my heroes in faraway lands. So one day I snagged an envelope from my father’s desk drawer, wrote to Roberto Clemente a nice note and inserted some cards that I asked him to sign. I addressed the envelope: Roberto Clemente, Forbes Field, Pittsburgh. My mom mailed it for me; this would have been 1965. A few weeks later a large brown envelope arrived with my name on it. The cards had been signed — and there was also an 8-by-10, black-and-white photo of Clemente: “To Kerry, Best Wishes, Roberto Clemente.”

Of course, I went on to lose a few cards this way, too, until I heeded Bill Virdon’s advice. Clemente’s teammate returned a few of his cards nicely autographed and enclosed a note: “You might be more successful doing this if you included a self-addressed, stamped envelope.” Some very little acts of kindness linger beyond imagining. Others run deep.

It was maybe the worst time in my life, at least so far. I talked and she listened. She let me talk and she asked the good questions and seemed to really want the answers. Or maybe wanted me to find the right answers and knew how to get me there by asking and listening and paying attention. And caring. It was the first time in my life — beyond childhood — that I knew the solace of another person. In some ways, she guided me toward myself. To say more here would be too much.

I will talk instead of things. Prayer feathers given me in South Dakota. Handmade Tibetan prayer flags. A ball of wood made in shop class by a student who should stick to writing. Rosary beads blessed by Pope John XXIII. A signed copy of To Kill a Mockingbird. A pole banner of the Louisiana state flag. A custom-made Notre Dame baseball glove — a Wilson A2000 — with my name stitched right into the leather, embroidery-style. A Roberto Clemente baseball bat. Sloppy, colorful, kid-created objets d’art given away for free. I still have a cache of old buckles, square nails and horseshoes that the amateur historian Mark Badgett picked up and gave me from his trek to retrace the Bozeman Trail. Books, too, and poems, letters and quotations people knew I would like.

Mac wrote back a week or two later, a long, handwritten letter on blue-lined notebook paper. I remember one line clearly: ‘Remember the mountains are not God, they are just the face of God.’

On the third floor of a house I once lived in was an attic-like escape room from the troubling turbulence that could erupt on the floors below. I would play my old records there and sift through cartons of stuff I had when I was young, even the little soldiers I had played with as a kid. Little Army men, cowboys and Indians, and blue and gray Civil War soldiers, cannons and wagons and such. I would set them up on the bare wooden floor, beside a floor-to-ceiling window that opened onto a towering maple tree and off toward downtown, city lights flickering at night through the leafy branches fluttering in soft breezes.

I would hold them in grown-up fingers, look at them closely, arrange them in battle formation and remember when. A few bore the teeth marks from my dog Scamp — wounds that I bloodied with red crayon when I was little. I would put music on — songs from my adolescent years and high school and beyond college — and I would drift back in time, somehow reconnecting with the boy I once was. I was 35 years old by then and a father, and I should have known better. But I liked where I went, and it soothed me, was therapeutic somehow. Oh, the places you’ll go. The places things can take us. That’s a book title, too. Dr. Seuss. A kindergarten graduation gift whose words deliver a bittersweet punch.

Inanimate objects can be rife with emotional currents, with a spirit of their own, possessing grace beyond what’s tangible. A pair of worn and weathered boots, an old jean jacket, a favorite hoodie. That old blue car. The sweater she wore that day in the Bighorns when the thunderheads rolled in from the west and the lightning snapped and sonic booms were felt, not heard, cosmic tympani, and the heavens opened up, serious downpour, and she laughed. Sometimes the universe itself is a gift giver.

On Sunday afternoons, after church, when we were teenagers, we drove south out of town, out past the high school and the Piggly Wiggly and the last gas station, out where the land lay flat and mostly treeless, the cottonfields and beans and cow pastures hemmed with barbed wire fencing. A narrow dirt road — twin tire ruts really — cut east across a field and curved into the lap of a levee. We could park there out of sight from any traffic on Louisiana Highway 1, slip through the fence, cross over the levee and enter a world of our own adventuring.

Red River flowed through there, its clay-colored waters flanked by broad fields of grass kept short by grazing cattle. We could play unseen all day in that set-aside country, swim in the river, lay out under the Southern sun on sandbars, explore and collect driftwood, race sticks in the muddy currents, chase each other and splash and run knee-deep in water and pay attention to the migration of clouds, the slow-going arc of the sun. It was there that I began to read the signs and script of nature. I’d carry things home — a prized piece of driftwood, a rusty Texas license plate, a small, weathered board that read “SARDINES” in heavy black letters, cow bones and a hunting knife.

Best of all was the bleached-white cow skull, eye holes cleaned out, nothing much left in the brain cavity, lower jaw gone, upper teeth intact, horns erect. Just like you’d see in old-time Westerns and cowboy books. I hung it on my bedroom wall. And my mother exclaimed, “Where did that come from? Why would you hang that ugly thing on the wall over your bed?”

When I was young, sure-minded and headstrong, I complained to my mom about all the stuff in our house — the knickknacks on shelves, figurines on tabletops, gewgaws and baubles and bric-a-brac. It seemed like so much clutter to me — a teenager lamenting the sins of our materialistic society, consumer culture and realms of superficiality. I argued in favor of the simple life, authenticity, reducing life to what’s real. I liked my patched jeans and the driftwood on my shelves.

After my dad was gone, and we were alone, my mom and me, we looked around the house and all that was in it. “There is just so much stuff here,” she said. “So many things. And none of it really matters. None of it will be of much use after I am gone.” I had matured enough by then not to say I told you so. Then she added, “But you know, when I look around and see what’s here, I can recall where each thing came from, the day it was bought, or who gave it to us.” Then she cited an item or two or three, or four, telling me where each had come from — usually friends who had traveled more widely than my folks had, and had brought gifts from the Vatican or China, Budapest or Paris. “And see,” she added, “every piece has a story behind it, and I’m the only one left who knows the stories. When I’m gone, the stories will be gone, too, and none of this stuff will mean anything to anyone.”

It made me sad; it also made me see. She had her things and I had mine. We looked at our stuff and knew the stories, saw our own ghosts, and visited with the memories beyond the thing itself. We had different tastes perhaps, and had gathered different kinds of things, but our collecting was really pretty much the same. She didn’t say, “See, I told you so.”

That afternoon with my mom stayed with me when my sister and I eventually took steps to clean out the house. It hurt. So much stuff. So many memories. The things all around us stood like containers packed with worlds and people and times recalled — all gone now. The lives all gone, the people passing away, all those days together, all the laughter and heart-to-hearts, the anguish, pain and teenage rebellion, all of us around the dinner table, on the couches watching TV, the Christmas mornings and birthday celebrations . . . all gone.

And it made me wonder, what’s it all for? What are we here for? My dad gone, too, and his dad and mother, cousins and aunts, grandparents, all lost to time, all the way back through the generations now unknown, maybe names on an ancestry chart, family trees receding into a long gone past. All that living. The perpetual dissolution of the human race. What’s it all for? Where do they go?

I mean, I know. I know the credos, storylines and well-reasoned philosophies, the wisdom of religion and humanity’s golden rules, the answers we’ve come up with, and all the mysteries yet unexplained, the “immutable truths” and the myriad things still unknown. I get it. And yet, there are days, too, I wonder what the purpose is. I look back over all I’ve done and the places I’ve been, and I wonder what matters anymore.

I figure Mac is dead by now, too, unless he lived to be 100. He gave us a ride one day — Dan Duffey ’74 and me — and spent the rest of that Sunday afternoon with us, escorting us into the Colorado Rockies before our junior year of college. We had flown to Denver, planning to hitchhike our way into the mountains for a backpacking expedition. Several hot hours on the roadside suggested this had been a bad idea, until Mac picked us up. Mac took us where we wanted to go, pretty much.

Along the way, he pulled off at all the “scenic overlooks” so we could savor the views as we looped ear-poppingly higher and higher into the vaulting national forest. He took us fishing in a mountain stream, stepping lightly over boulders to point out the shady, clear-water pools where trout liked to hang out. He gave us a few hooks and some line and a glass jar of salmon eggs, so we could catch dinner during our foolhardy excursion. He gave us fire-making advice when he learned we had no stove. He gave us some plastic sheeting from the trunk of his car when he learned we had no tent. He did not laugh or gasp or call us foolish or stupid when we told him we were hauling canned food for every meal.

Instead, as the sun began to set, he drove his car onto a grassy ridge, elevation unknown but high enough that, when we got out, he pointed north and said, “See those snow-covered peaks out there in the distance? That’s Rocky Mountain National Park. Just walk that way and in a few days you’ll likely get there.” It took 10. And it rained or snowed every one of them.

Before driving off, he gave me his address. He had said he could probably find us work the next summer on his crew building highways through the mountains. I wrote him that fall, partly to stay in touch, partly to continue a conversation we’d had that day. It started tentatively, bashfully on my part, but it had to do with finding God in nature — a concept I had harbored myself but had not shared, or even read much about. Our talk reassured me in my thinking, as I felt a kind of winged exuberance in the midst of such wildness and beauty and sensed his encouragement to follow my heart.

Mac wrote back a week or two later, a long, handwritten letter on blue-lined notebook paper. I remember one line clearly: “Remember the mountains are not God, they are just the face of God.” The rest of the letter was full of biblical quotes, the Psalms and other passages extolling the grandeur of nature from a Christian perspective. Mac himself was devoutly Christian, it seemed, although he had never let on when tooling around with us that day. But that is why he has stayed on my mind all these years. He was the guy who opened his door to a couple of strangers on the roadside and treated them Christlike without claiming he was.

I suppose we all have encounters like this. The parking lot attendant in New Orleans, the hitchhiker I picked up in Mississippi, the Lakota elder at Ring Thunder on the Rosebud Reservation. People whose paths we cross as if it’s somehow meant to be, handing over some secret burning coal, monklike, before going again their own way.

The universe is indeed a generous place, offering up cow skulls and fellow sojourners with generous spirits, hummingbirds and vast oceans, the bristlecone pine and rugged mountainscapes, wild meadow flowers and the skyscraper cottonwood in my backyard. And the nighttime heavens — if you’re fortunate enough to be far away from the glare of people-things — whose majesty will instill again the kind of awe and wonder and worship that you possibly knew as a kid.

Gratitude gathers over the years as the gifts pile up, and you come to see how much of your life is made by the generosity of others. You come to see what is happening. I see now how it works. All the things to be grateful for. And all the ways to be a giver, too.

There is a Jackson Browne song I have listened to for 50 years. I knew it in my 20s and played it those nights on the third floor of a house I once lived in, when I’d sift through the things from my childhood. It is on my playlist still. It’s called “For a Dancer.” It has a sad and fluid melody with lyrics about a death and life carrying on. “Just do the steps that you’ve been shown” it goes, “By everyone you’ve ever known / Until the dance becomes your very own.” It ends here:

Into a dancer you have grown

From a seed somebody else has thrown.

Go on ahead and throw some seeds of your own

And somewhere between the time you arrive

And the time you go

May lie a reason you were alive

That you’ll never know.

I suppose that if you’re stalled out and asking what it’s all for, then this reasoning is as good as any. So you carry on, pay attention to the day, try to make life nicer for others, maybe not knowing how it all turns out, but having faith that the big-picture questions will eventually take care of themselves.

Kerry Temple is editor of this magazine.